Some teachers write well over 150 reports in a matter of weeks.
The pressure piles on, because these are high-stakes documents: ones that will be read by senior leaders, proofreaders (if you’re lucky enough to have them), parents and, of course, the student.
Writing meaningful reports is actually a much underrated and undervalued art. So it pays to prepare well in advance, to avoid panic at the deadline.
This is my strategy for managing the process:
1. Get to know your students as well as you possibly can
No worthwhile report can come out of a vague impression. This is an incredibly tall order for secondary humanities teachers, who see several large classes of 30 or more each week.
It takes time and conscious effort to get some detail about the less obtrusive people in the room, and it’s not something you can leave until the last minute.
Noting down observations as they arise can help, as can retaining notes from parents’ evenings and assessments over the year.
2. Create opportunities to hear your students speak
Ensure that you can hear or see them in action during lessons in the weeks building up to report-writing season.
3. Delete the statement bank
Students can spot patterns of expression a mile off when they compare their reports with their friends’.
This is especially true when they get identical combinations of comments from one of their subject teachers.
4. Cut back meaningless generic waffle
Don’t talk at length about what the class has studied over the past year, unless you are going to put the student into the context of that learning. If so, where do they fit in?
5. Aim to write something that isn’t bland
We have all encountered the report that goes something like this:
“Grace has completed a number of assignments. She is working steadily and achieving an acceptable standard. It’s clear that Grace has a number of talents, which are emerging in her work.
"She is doing as well as can be expected in the light of her ability. With further effort, Grace could do even better. I look forward to seeing more of the same in the coming academic year.”
Such general and non-committal statements cover an acceptable amount of paper without saying anything contentious – or, indeed, useful.
6. Think of your report as a kind of pen portrait
7. Open your report well
Begin with a clear opening statement. This should reveal how you perceive the student in class.
Have they been generous in their contributions – or even over-generous? Have they been retiring, hiding their light under a bushel – as you discovered later? Have they been distracted? Or, indeed, distracting?
8. Consider 'soft skills', such as ability to collaborate
Employers and parents love to know about the students’ social selves. Have they supported, challenged, contradicted or helped others?
9. How quickly do students grasp ideas and develop concepts?
This could be your chance to comment on something that has posed difficulties, and which show the student in a good light as they overcame the challenge.
It may be that there is an ongoing problem for which they need support from home or from within the school. Or it may be that extra effort is the answer.
10. How well do they write?
It could be that the student is very dependent on a writing frame. Or, at the other end of the ability range, they are beyond needing such help and are competently planning and structuring their own responses.
Possibly they are showing true maturity in taking on this task with no prompting.
11. How accurate is students' writing?
It could be that students have easily grasped the rules of spelling, punctuation and grammar. Or it may be that they have not really paid enough attention to the basics.
Perhaps they could be challenged by you suggesting that they aim to write a variety of sentence structures with different openings.
12. Consider your tone
You may think that your witty comment is amusing, but will it be taken as such by the audiences for whom you are writing?
13. Have you combined helpful criticism with constructive praise?
This is a difficult one for teachers, because some schools don’t like to include anything that might be contentious.
Critical comments, no matter how well founded, risk the backlash of an angry parental email – followed by many hours of meetings, action plans and interventions. Not to mention the sleepless nights of self-blame.
On the other hand, students need to know where they stand. Most teachers want to give a fair picture of what is going on.
14. Do you offer helpful suggestions?
Did you offer ideas as to how they can improve their work or widen their repertoire of skills? It’s usually best to offer this close to the end, as a springboard to future development.
15. Have you proofread your own work?
I have deliberately left this one 'til last. For many schools, accuracy comes top of the list.
Obviously, we need to write as well as – if not better than – our own students, in order to keep our credibility.
However, your spelling, grammar and punctuation mistakes will have to be put right, either by you at a later stage, when the heat is on to get the reports out on time, or by a proofreader – or by your line manager.
The grammar and spelling checking functions on a computer don’t always pick up on the specific context in which you’ve use a word or punctuation mark, so you might like to consider the following:
- Have you spelled the student’s name correctly as it appears on the official school list? And have you been consistent throughout the report?
- Have you ensured that you are not writing a report that you have adapted from another student's, and forgotten to change the name in all places?
- Do you know how to use commas correctly?
- Relatedly, are you using commas where there should really be a full stop to mark the end of a sentence? This kind of error is increasingly common as written language becomes less formal. The best way to check is to read your work aloud. To avoid the problem, use shorter sentences. The advantage of shorter sentences is that they provide clarity and purpose.
- Have you spelled high-frequency words correctly? Do you know the difference between "practice" and "practise", for example?
- Have you used apostrophes correctly? A grammar-check function can try to put apostrophes in the wrong places, so don’t rely on it too completely.
The real secret to writing a memorable report is quite simple: keep it short, snappy and individual. It’s quicker to check, and the real message gets through more clearly.
Yvonne Williams is head of English and drama in a secondary school in the South of England. She has contributed chapters on workload and wellbeing to Mentoring English Teachers in the Secondary School, edited by Debbie Hickman (Routledge)